At a Reuters editorial management course in Singapore around 1997, the attendees were being reminded about the principle of objectivity in journalism. To play his or her stated role in a global news organisation, the journalist had to be a perennial outsider with no affiliation.
At that point, the trainer theatrically looked over his shoulder as if to see that no-one else was listening and leaned in toward the class, sotto voce: “Actually, that’s not really true. We aren’t objective at all. Implicit in everything we write is an acceptance of the Washington Consensus.”
That assumption did not seem such a big deal then. We were nearly a decade into a period in which the wall between communism and capitalism had come down. The old eastern bloc and the developing world were falling over themselves to adopt the IMF model of liberalisation of trade and capital flows, fiscal restraint, privatisation, deregulation and competitive exchange rates.
But within months of our attending that course, the IMF prescription was coming under severe scrutiny, not least in Asia, where billions of dollars in ‘hot money’ that had poured into countries like Thailand, Indonesia and South Korea turned tail just as quickly, creating massive depreciations, bankruptcies, mass unemployment and recession.
In its one-size fits all prescription for resolving the crisis (which later engulfed Russia and Eastern Europe), the IMF was roundly criticised as inept, naive and ideologically blinkered. Its Washington Consensus frame had proved inadequate in dealing with destabilising capital flows and the impact these might have on countries with immature banking, legal and financial systems.
For a financial journalist who had blithely accepted the neo-liberal consensus of the 80s and 90s as just the way things were, this crisis represented a wake-up call. One’s treasured ‘objectivity’ wasn’t so objective at all. In fact, it was just another frame that attempted to force messy reality into a set of prescribed values one had subconsciously and self-servingly adopted as the whole truth.
This ‘news as framing’ is one of the objections to traditional notions of of objectivity explored by University of Sydney media and communications senior lecturer Steven Maras in his new book ‘Objectivity in Journalism’.
“Frame blindness describes a situation where journalists fail to recognise the ideological nature of their own framing of issues,” Maras writes. “Framing relates to a key dilemma in journalism. On the one hand, reporters provide just the facts. On the other hand, they are teachers and storytellers compelled to draw on frames to educate, persuade and entertain,”
In what amounts to a comprehensive review of the academic literature, from classic studies by Walter Lipmann to more contemporary critics such as as Jay Rosen, Maras shows that journalistic objectivity is a much more slippery and fluid concept than the one defined by Walter Kronkite as “the reporting of reality, of facts, as nearly as they can be obtained without the injection of prejudices and personal opinion”. For one thing, the notion has evolved over the years and was not fully articulated as an ideal until the 1920s. It can mean different things in different cultures. And we can see it transforming again in an age of 24-hour news, social media and partisan outlets such as Fox.
Maras, in surveying a surprisingly rich vein of thinking around this issue, is careful not to insert his own thinking other than to say it is not an “either-or” argument. In other words, it is not simply a choice between the conservative, absolutist, facts-are-all, reporter-as-cipher view of journalism or the post-modernist, truth-is-relative view that reality is constructed and sold by hegemonic forces.
“It is incorrect to suggest that the argument that meaning is culturally constructed means there is no truth,” Maras writes. “Truths, even those constructed within formations of power and knowledge that are in a sense relative, retain their force.”
Objectivity, in this preferred definition, is not a passive concept, but an active one. It becomes an ideal, albeit an impossible one, that journalists work towards. In the meantime, they can focus on the attainable and practical goals of honesty, fairness, accuracy, completeness and complexity. It is not about just “reporting the facts”, but ensuring one does not leave out relevant facts. It is also about journalists recognising and accepting the tensions and compromises between their need to impart the reality of a story and their need to stand apart from it.
“There are two main ways that reflective human beings try to give sense to life, either by solidarity or objectivity,” Maras writes in a summary of the views of pragmatist Richard Rorty. “Journalism is caught uncomfortably and seemingly irrevocably between the two. Too much solidarity and one ceases to ask hard questions of the community. Too much objectivity and one finds oneself in the realm of non-human reality, transcending the world of the community and readers.”
My own view is that traditional journalism, as it is practised in much of the Anglosphere, leans too much toward traditional objectivity. Journalists fail when they are blind to the influence of the cultural and ideological milieu from which they position their reporting. In a sense, the more they see themselves as standing outside it all, the more they are likely to be comfortably embedded, inside the machine, without being aware of it.
And this is why there is such disenchantment with so much traditional ‘mainstream media’ political and economic reporting. It stems from a refusal or at least a reluctance by the traditional press to at least reflect on the fact that they are part of the apparatus that they report on. And that it is this standpoint that colours their view of the world.
It’s also why the Fifth Estate – the ideal of journalists working alongside the community, not in separation to it – holds so much promise.